So who was your pick for “most outstanding college football player” in 2004: No. 1 Southern Cal., No. 2 Oklahoma or Alex Smith?

Gennaro Filice

Was it coincidence that four of the five Heisman Trophy finalists came from the two teams that have spent this entire season atop both major polls? Not a chance.

Saturday night’s Heisman presentation further proved that the award is — as folks have alleged for years — not what it claims to be.

In the new millennium, the most celebrated individual award is not given to the “most outstanding college football player,” the trophy’s declared significance. Rather, it’s handed to the sexiest media storyline.

Fifty-two former Heisman winners currently have a say in Heisman balloting, but it’s the 870 media votes that really decide who hoists the stiff-arming figurine. These media members are absolutely infatuated with players on national powerhouses. This is why Smith’s campaign was always just a mid-major tease and why Cal’s J.J. Arrington — who (with 40 fewer carries) beat out freshman sensation Adrian Peterson by two yards to lead the nation in rushing — never even garnered serious consideration.

But the media’s tunnel vision narrows even further than team discrimination.

Looking at the quartet from the nation’s top-two teams, Southern Cal. running back Reggie Bush — whose overall effect on a football game is astounding — was by far the best “most-outstanding-player” candidate. But he wasn’t the best Heisman candidate. His quarterback, Matt Leinart, was.

While a dominant receiver or running back at a storied school (Bush) is relatively sexy to media members, a dominant quarterback at a storied school is Brooke Burke.

Don’t get me wrong — Leinart had a hell of a year. His numbers are spectacular. But his production on the field wasn’t the overriding reason why he spent last night thanking everyone from mom and dad to the USC football student assistants.

Leinart won the award — in surprisingly convincing fashion — because he is the quarterback of the best team in America.

The quarterback position has always carried a certain aura. An intelligent, gutsy, calm, consistent, athletic, unquestioned leader, the quarterback is America’s premier sports hero. These signal-callers are almost always the figureheads of their teams. It takes a very bland, overtly average man to not draw mass attention solely by lining up under center. While quarterbacks receive scores of interest at all levels of football, attention paid to the position maxes out in college ball. Football players experience great maturation — both physical and mental — in college, and the quarterback is always expected to lead this trend. So, the position always breeds unparalleled media ballyhoo. And with the college game’s aerial explosion over the last decade, the hype surrounding quarterbacks has increased even more.

This is why every Heisman Trophy winner of the new millennium leading up to Leinart (Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch, Carson Palmer and Jason White) had been the signal-caller of a national title-caliber team. It’s difficult to argue that any one of these players (and impossible to argue that every one of them) was “the most outstanding player” during his respective Heisman run. But this is not what the famed award currently represents. The Heisman Trophy has just turned into an alternate Davey O’Brien Award (which honors the nation’s top quarterback).

Having led the Trojans to a national title last season, Leinart was already a media darling (and, therefore, a Heisman favorite) when spring practice started. And by the time that the voters had to weigh in, Leinart had advantages over the other two big school-quarterback candidates — White and Auburn’s Jason Campbell. The media could never make White — who actually won the Davey O’Brien award for the second consecutive year last week — the second repeat Heisman winner ever because of the way he sullied the honor with a colossal collapse in his final two games of last season. And Campbell never had a real chance to gain enough publicity because the Tigers were unheralded at the beginning of the year.

Leinart furthered the Heisman Trophy’s identity crisis, and he may advance the trend even more. Leinart stressed on Saturday night that he plans to return for a senior season.

So, what are the chances that Leinart joins Archie Griffin — the Heisman’s only two-time winner — in 2005?

The better question is: What will Southern Cal. be ranked a year from now?

 

Gennaro Filice can be reached at gfilice@umich.edu.

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